Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Invention of Air


This is a great book. It's only a couple of hundred pages and I just couldn't put it down. As M says, it's basically about all of my favorite things - systems thinking, transdisciplinarity, the American Revolution, founding fathers, scientific revolution. And the author Steve Johnson is great. I've only read one of his other books (Emergence) and it was awesome as well - really a must read. Putting my biases aside, I don't know if I'd say Invention is a must read, but if you're into that sort of thing, it's definitely a great read.

The book is about Joesph Priestly - a British "natural philosopher" (scientists of the day), around the time of the Revolution, and big buddies with Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, etc. He did a ton of experiments and is often credited with 'discovering' oxygen. He isolated it first, but was kind of off in interpreting what it was, so others rounded out the discovery and named the gas. But he also basically discovered that plants give off oxygen - through very cool experiments with sprigs of mint in jars that were able to live on, while candles in jars went out, and mice died without the plants. Piecing it together with Franklin, they opened the door for the ecosystems view of the planet (though they didn't articulate it in the way we understand it today). But that process - photosynthesis, driven by solar power - the 'engine' of nature - is central to understanding the "System" level of the framework for SSD, and what makes a sustainable society. And so it's very cool to trace it back to such a key discovery, and such a key moment.

Also very cool is how the book draws out how those types of moments don't happen in isolation. The context, the interactions, the chance that lead to big changes are all crucial. And tracing Priestly through his interactions and escapades is a great way to demonstrate that. The stories about his engagement with 'societies' in London and other places he lived are great. The main one, where he got his start and met Franklin is the Honest Whigs - where they would come together on a regular basis in some pub, have a big meal and few pints and share ideas, compare notes, report back on experiments, and drive the revolution in thought that was occuring. This was a rather effective motivator for finally getting a Green Drinks chapter going here in Gloucester.

The information networks that these types of meetings, plus the great letters of the day, and the papers, created were also critical to big evolutionary leap that took place around the time. And there are parrallels, of course to today. The chages we are faced with are unprecedented, but in many ways the principles are very similar to those in any kind of big shift in a system. The openness of information and sharing of ideas got Priestly in a lot of trouble, but also got his ideas out there for others to improve upon, and consequently improve quality of life, and take us into a new chapter in our cultural evolution. The internet and mobile devices are obviously helping to drive similar dynamics today.

Priestly also shook things up in the spiritual realm, essentially founding of Unitarianism, and providing a view of Christianity that Jefferson credits with keeping him from having to abandon it all togehter. The crossing of disciplines with ease (far more common before the rigid disciplines and specializations of the modern university changed the way we view the world) is a central theme, and again resonates with the sustainability movement, as we see growth in the interrelated areas of spiritual exploration, evolving consciouness and the like.

In making this leap, the stakes are of course a bit higher. It's not the King of England and the church establishment we're facing down, it's the potential for the collapse of civilization. The good news is we're driving the mechanisms responsible for that potential, so it's really us we're facing down, and thus very much within our power to gear up and dramatically rethink and redesign how we go about our business. We've just got to get together and do it - and luckily the upswell of awareness and engagement continues to grow. Stay going.